France’s unpredictable political machine fires up once more

France’s unpredictable political machine fires up once more

The French political machine is powering up again after a summer break, greatly in anticipation of December’s regional elections. This week, loyalists and members of France’s governing Socialist party, along with those from the Front National, have been gathering to muse party strategy and reflect on policy in the annual ‘université d’été’ conference season amid a stagnant economy and a large programme of reforms aimed at cutting down France’s large bureaucracy.

If last week was dominated by fall-out from the parricide of Front National co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, this week’s big story was a proverbial call to arms to rescue the flagging Socialist ship, together with the internal row within the government over the country’s sacred 35-hour working week.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls brought the party gathering to a close with a speech centred on the values of the Socialists, calling for members to be “proud”. So passionate was his hour-long address that his shirt was visibly soaked through with sweat. Among his pledges was the duty to help those fleeing war, torture, oppression and persecution, who “need” France’s help and “must” be welcomed.

On the 35-hour working week law, the holy cow of the French left, Valls considered the issue “clos”, or closed, after a series of heated public disagreements with rogue Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron. He argued it was a “false idea” for France to think it would create more jobs and grow more if people worked fewer hours, especially in comparison with other European nations, such as Britain or Italy. Favouring abstract language, Valls asserted: “What interests me is not the past but the future.”

Absent from the weekend conference, young members of the Socialists called for Macron’s resignation, booing at the mention of his name or allusion to his economic plan.

Macron, a former banker, has thus far divided political minds. For the traditionalist wing of the Socialist party, he is part of the elite, guilty of straying from traditional Socialist values, as Hollande positions himself as increasingly pro-business, after a purge of left-wing members from his cabinet last summer. Supporters say Macron is forcing France to face an inconvenient truth and, as such, adopt necessary reforms.

The minister said work should be a “central value of the left”, not a “taboo subject”.

Reforms for France’s flat economy are the order of the day as the unpopular government seeks to be seen as economically credible. Defiant as ever, Valls said: “We are pressing ahead with the deep reforms our economy needs” – “we won’t be swayed”. In the firing line, the country’s rigid labour laws, which have “become inefficient” and “curbed activity”.

In the crowd-pleasing address, the prime minister equally evoked the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January as a means of promoting equality and fighting against discrimination in France, and criticising the confusing, “incoherent” right of politics, and the reactionary far-right.

A survey for France’s Paris Match magazine this week confirmed a trend that the incumbent Socialist party would be eliminated in the first round of voting in the country’s presidential election in 2017. In first place – Marine Le Pen, whose popularity has suffered only slightly following the public execution of her outspoken father, Jean-Marie.

The poll also compared the fortunes of several Socialist leaders, pitting President against Prime Minister Valls and several other hypothetical candidates. It showed that Manuel Valls would do marginally better than François Hollande, beaten by Republican candidate and former President Nicolas Sarkozy by just one point.

For the FN’s part, Marion Maréchal Le Pen – the party’s only deputy in the south – would win the first round of voting in December elections. In the second round, to be held a week later, she would lose by a narrow gap of just 2 points, within the margin of error in this one poll. In this way, the fight between right and extreme right has rarely been closer, and evidently it’s all to play for in a battle of tight numbers.

The poll has given rise to suggestions that Prime Minister Valls, seen as performing well with 29-45 year olds, professionals and those with a higher education, is an attractive candidate for the Socialists if unemployment doesn’t fall, leaving an empty seat at the top of the party, after Hollande’s pledge to not stand as Socialist candidate in the 2017 presidential elections.

Valls is part of the social liberal wing of the Socialist party, known for widening the appeal of the party by positioning himself as a bold reformer, capable of breaking down party taboos.

Selling ambitious – albeit watered-down – and divisive reforms to the French people will play alongside questions within the equally divided Socialist government. Endless discussions about Hollande’s deep unpopularity will pose questions about the leadership of the party ahead of elections, particularly with Valls in mind as his successor. However, such leadership whispers, serve as nothing more than a great distraction from the more crucial economic questions facing France.

The outcome of the government’s five-year term will depend above all on the health of the French economy, and the all but uncertain fate of the programme of reforms. Survival is the best option for this Socialist government.

Back to school for France’s President

Back to school for France’s President

Playtime will soon be over. A few weeks remain before French children return to school after their summer holiday. Parents perform the annual ritual of buying books and pencils in what the French call the rentrée scolaire and it’s obsessively discussed across French TV and radio. It is a homecoming too for France’s deputies who return to parliament tomorrow – and for President François Hollande, who faces a timetable dominated worringly by a flat-lining economy and consistently low popularity ratings. Question: how will the President dress up these dismal figures faced with predictably fierce criticism?

Here is a flavour of what will be on the agenda in the next few months.

Economics

Satirical TV show 'Les Guignols de l'Info' depicts François Hollande reading about growing unemployment. Credit: YouTube
Satirical TV show ‘Les Guignols de l’Info’ depicts François Hollande reading about growing unemployment. Credit: YouTube

Last week saw anaemic growth for the Eurozone as a whole of just +0.3%. For France, the bloc’s second largest economy, it was a humiliating 0 – no growth at all in the second quarter, despite predictions of +0.3%, and a marked fall from the remarkable +0.7% in the months from January to March. Household consumption and business investment and confidence have both slowed, despite measures such as the eurozone-wide programme of quantative easing to stimulate businesses earlier this year.

Ministers will be hoping their big package of measures – the loi Macron – named after economy minister Emmanuelle Macron to liberalise the economy, including Sunday opening hours in tourist areas and cut red tape, will bring more positive figures, but this is still some way off from fruition.

Crucially, the flat-lining of the economy makes any reduction in France’s unemployment rate – currently 10.3% – and its sizeable deficit – due to its immense public sector – all the more difficult.

France is predicting growth of just 1% this year, and 1.6% in 2016, as Finance Minister Michel Sapin remains adamant such growth aspirations can be achieved. Compare that to the UK’s forecast this year of 2.5% growth, and Germany’s 1.7%. Sapin said the government wouldn’t waver from measures such as tax cuts for businesses, which have divided parliament.

France’s economy, along with the rest of Europe, is being buoyed by the 6-year low in the cost of fuel, but this has yet to filter down to weak domestic demand. One analyst says he expects the labour market to gradually stabilise and confidence to be reinforced in the coming months, but added there is little prospect of growth of more than one per-cent this year.

Politics

Speaking to a local Corsican newspaper today while on holiday, former President and Republican Party hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy went on the offensive in a strategically explosive interview just a day before politicians return from their break. He criticised Hollande and prime minister Manuel Valls, accusing them of dishonesty. He said: “François Hollande and Manuel Valls have said to us for three years that things are getting better, that unemployment is going to fall, that growth is going to return, that the French people are going to pay less in taxes. Three years that they’ve been wrong or have been lying to the French people.”

An exclusive interview with Nicolas Sarkozy. Credit: Corse Matin
An exclusive interview with Nicolas Sarkozy in Corsica. Credit: Corse Matin

He also took a swipe at Valls’ latest idea of cutting waste and France’s dreaded bureaucracy – to reduce the number of the country’s regions from 22 to 13. He said such a measure “destroys what we have built”. Seeing himself once again as President material, he commented on Russia and France’s pork crisis in Brittany, an ongoing row over unfair pricing for farmers.

It’s worth remembering that France’s delicate recovery matters so much to François Hollande that he has gambled his candidacy for the Socialist party in the 2017 presidential race, affirming that he will step down if unemployment doesn’t fall sufficiently before then. Throughout his presidency, Hollande has consistently punctuated the publication of economic indicators by reiterating the mantra of an economic recovery, but one which is all too weak. It has been clear for some time that many French people have become impatient with this unpopular, repetitive president.

Presidential elections will fall in spring 2017, but the next test for the ruling Socialist government will be regional elections in December, in which Marine Le Pen will likely again make large waves. They will be pivotal in deciding the balance of power and predicting leaders in the 2017 race for the Elysée. Expect many tens of addresses and hours of train journeys crossing the country to talk directly to the French electorate.

At tomorrow’s meeting of ministers, Hollande will be quick to appoint a new Work Minister – a post seen as key in combatting unemployment – as incumbent François Rebsamen leaves the post to focus on his mayorship of Dijon. In the coming weeks, the fight against terrorism and starting to prepare the final budget of the President’s term will be the most important themes.

The environment

If François Hollande can’t cut it for a domestic audience, it will be on the international stage that he will be wishing to gain recognition. Paris will play host to the United Nations Climate Change conference at the beginning of December. François Hollande is hoping for decisive action on the environmental front to be a poignant moment of his quinquennat, or five-year term in office. A legally-binding reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to limit an increase in global temperatures is the key goal of this meeting.

Diplomacy

A month after historical talks between the UN and Iran over its nuclear activities concluded with a deal, and France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius visit to Tehran, Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani was last month handed an invitation to visit Paris this November. Whilst there is some caution as to the nature of the country’s thawing relationship with the West, what is more assured is the attempt  to restart trade with the isolated Middle Eastern state. François Hollande will be hoping to promote France’s biggest car brands – Renault, Peugeot and Citroen – as Iran’s economy begins the slow process of opening up.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, left, welcomes Britain's Interior Minister Theresa May before the start of an international meeting aimed at fighting terrorism, in Paris, France, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015. A rally of defiance and sorrow, protected by an unparalleled level of security, on Sunday will honor the 17 victims of three days of bloodshed in Paris that left France on alert for more violence. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)/PAR115/987867890141/1501111213
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve meets with British Home Secretary Theresa May in Calais on Thursday

The migrant crisis in Calais has surprisingly received far less mainstream media coverage in France than you would expect. With finger pointing on either side of the Channel, French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve will meet with his opposite number Teresa May on Thursday, even touring the Eurotunnel, to discuss the migrant crisis, which has seen most recent numbers of migrants dwindle – temporarily or not. A deal will be signed to increase security in the Calais port area, as well as discussing people trafficking and humanitarian efforts.

The President’s summer has largely been occupied by the many late-night emergency meetings which brought Greece back from the brink of Grexit and European economic chaos. Negotiating with hardline Angela Merkel and sticking up for Greek PM Alexis Tsipras, Hollande has long been keeping a close eye on European affairs, as he argues for an ever closer currency union between the 19 Eurozone members.

With all of this, there are now only 20 months to the presidential election. One adviser in the Elysée said: “This is a very important phase in the five-year term.”

Mistakes at this point in the political game simply cannot be made.